Brazil’s Silent Revolution

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Written by Yuniya Khan, Paulo Rogerio Nunes, Matthew Schehl and Naheed Vadsaria

Beneath the current political chaos in Brazil, a silent revolution is emerging to give voice to a long-marginalized population and take action against racism and discrimination.

Since the end of slavery in 1888, Afro-Brazilians have struggled to be heard and influence politics, business and society throughout the country. Despite comprising a significant segment of the population—over half of Brazilians identified as ‘black’ (preto) or ‘brown’ (pardo) in the 2010 census—Afro-Brazilians are rarely portrayed in the media, and their opinions and thoughts aren’t generally recognized or acknowledged.

Salvador, in northeast Bahia state, is the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture. Its famous city center, Pelourinho, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was here that Portuguese colonists punished slaves by whipping them in the plaza center; Pelourinho is Portuguese for ‘whipping post’. Portugal founded the city in 1549 as its colonial slave market hub, importing over four million African slaves through three centuries. These slaves brought with them a distinct blend of music, art, food and dance: today the soul of Brazil, attracting tourists from all over the world.

New organizations in Salvador are now working to move the Afro-Brazilian voice into the nation’s socio-economic and political realms as well. The Instituto Mídia Étnica and Emerge Salvador, for example, are empowering Afro-Brazilian by positively promoting them in the media and imparting entrepreneurial skills. Instituto Mídia Étnica is a media and technology organization started by a group of college students in 2005. The institution strives to challenge racism through positively representing Afro-Brazilian culture and diversity in the media, according to Paulo Rogerio Nunes, of the group’s founders.

“Afro-Brazilians play meager roles such as maids and butlers on television,” he said. “Their skills and talents are not demonstrated, and billboards do not even advertise these inspiring actors.” IME has started programs such as Correio Nagô, a website which provides a platform for Afro-Brazilians to discuss the racial, economic and political inequality they face when trying to advance themselves in Brazilian society.

The institute has interviewed numerous Afro-Brazilian activists, such as 22-year-old break-out filmmaker Yasmin Thayna. Yasmin directed and produced “Kbela,” a 2015 documentary that uses music and images to tell a story about Afro-Brazilian natural hair and beauty. The documentary portrays the lengths women go through to straighten their hair to meet acceptable standards of society and promotes the natural beauty of Afro-Brazilians. The film is an official selection at the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Other programs IME has established include Afro Hacker, which provides information technology classes on robotics and technical tools. There is also an entrepreneurship class, which teaches Afro-Brazilian business owners accounting principles, budgeting, advertising and marketing.

IME also partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Rio de Janeiro to conduct an exchange program, sending two Afro-Brazilian journalists to Atlanta, Georgia, and two African American journalists to Salvador. The objective is to expose American journalists to the rich history and identities of Afro-Brazilians.

Another project that IME is in the process of creating is Ujaama, a co-working space for emerging Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurs, activists and students to work and exchange ideas.

The second organization, Emerge Salvador, is an independent project started by Yuniya Khan. Its mission is to “identify and share the stories of Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurs who are working hard to bring their vision to life,” through storytelling, capacity-building and facilitating connections, according to its website. The project creates short biographical films about entrepreneurs, providing them a platform to share their journey, their vision and goals, challenges and opportunities. These films, with accompanying narratives and photographs, are shared on the project’s website. Emerge Salvador also teamed with IME to facilitate the entrepreneur classes mentioned above. Emerge Salvador is in the process of expanding in scope and territory: under the newly formed ‘Emerge Project’, audiences will gain insight into the work and impact of emerging black entrepreneurs in South Africa and Brazil.

Afro-Brazilians want their voices to be heard and to become equal participants across the Brazilian social and political landscapes. Organizations such as IME and Emerge Salvador are fighting to provide the space for their voices, in Brazil and around the world.